Archive for the ‘Tacky’ Category

In sales and marketing (as I understand them), one of the principal techniques to close a sale is to generate momentum by getting the prospective mark buyer to agree to a series of minor statements (small sells) leading to the eventual purchasing decision (the big sell or final sale). It’s narrow to broad, the reverse of the broad-to-narrow paragraph form many of us were taught in school. Both organizational forms proceed through assertions that are easy to swallow before getting to the intended conclusion. That conclusion could be either an automotive purchase or adoption of some argument or ideology. When the product, service, argument, or ideology is sold effectively by a skilled salesman or spin doctor narrative manager, that person may be recognized as a closer, as in sealing the deal.

Many learn to recognize the techniques of the presumptive closer and resist being drawn in too easily. One of those techniques is to reframe the additional price of something as equivalent to, say, one’s daily cup of coffee purchased at some overpriced coffee house. The presumption is that if one has the spare discretionary income to buy coffee every day, then one can put that coffee money instead toward a higher monthly payment. Suckers might fall for it — even if they don’t drink coffee — because the false equivalence is an easily recognized though bogus substitution. The canonical too-slick salesman no one trusts is the dude on the used car lot wearing some awful plaid jacket and sporting a pornstache. That stereotype, borne out of the 1970s, barely exists anymore but is kept alive by repetitive reinforcement in TV and movies set in that decade or at least citing the stereotype for cheap effect (just as I have). But how does one spot a skilled rhetorician, spewing social and political hot takes to drive custom narratives? Let me identify a few markers.

Thomas Sowell penned a brief article entitled “Point of No Return.” I surmise (admitting my lack of familiarity) that creators.com is a conservative website, which all by itself does not raise any flags. Indeed, in heterodox fashion, I want to read well reasoned arguments with which I may not always agree. My previous disappointment that Sowell fails in that regard was only reinforced by the linked article. Take note that the entire article uses paragraphs that are reduced to bite-sized chunks of only one or two sentences. Those are small sells, inviting closure with every paragraph break.

Worse yet, only five (small) paragraphs in, Sowell succumbs to Godwin’s Law and cites Nazis recklessly to put the U.S. on a slippery slope toward tyranny. The obvious learned function of mentioning Nazis is to trigger a reaction, much like baseless accusations of racism, sexual misconduct, or baby eating. It puts everyone on the defensive without having to demonstrate the assertion responsibly, which is why the first mention of Nazis in argument is usually sufficient to disregard anything else written or said by the person in question. I might have agreed with Sowell in his more general statements, just as conservatism (as in conservation) appeals as more and more slips away while history wears on, but after writing “Nazi,” he lost me entirely (again).

Sowell also raises several straw men just to knock them down, assessing (correctly or incorrectly, who can say?) what the public believes as though there were monolithic consensus. I won’t defend the general public’s grasp of history, ideological placeholders, legal maneuvers, or cultural touchstones. Plenty of comedy bits demonstrate the deplorable level of awareness of individual members of society like they were fully representative of the whole. Yet plenty of people pay attention and accordingly don’t make the cut when offering up idiocy for entertainment. (What fun, ridiculing fools!) The full range of opinion on any given topic is not best characterized by however many idiots and ignoramuses can be found by walking down the street and shoving a camera and mic in their astonishingly unembarrassed faces.

So in closing, let me suggest that, in defiance of the title of this blog post, Thomas Sowell is in fact not a closer. Although he drops crumbs and morsels gobbled up credulously by those unable to recognize they’re being sold a line of BS, they do not make a meal. Nor should Sowell’s main point, i.e., the titular point of no return, be accepted when his burden of proof has not been met. That does not necessary mean Sowell is wrong in the sense that even a stopped close tells the time correctly twice a day. The danger is that even if he’s partially correction some of the time, his perspective and program (nonpartisan freedom! whatever that may mean) must be considered with circumspection and disdain. Be highly suspicious before buying what Sowell is selling. Fundamentally, he’s a bullshit artist.

The famous lyric goes “haters gonna hate.” That reflexive structure is equivalent to the meaningless phrase “It is what it is.” Subtexts attach to these phrases, and they take on lives of their own, after a fashion, with everyone pretending to know precisely what is intended and meant. That was the lesson, by the way, of the phrase “Stupid is as stupid does,” made up precisely to confound bullies who were making fun of someone of apparently limited capacity. In light of these commonplace rhetorical injunctions to actual thought, it is unsurprising that practitioners of various endeavors would be revealed as cheerleaders and self-promoters (sometimes rabidly so) for their own passion projects. With most activities, however, one can’t XX about XX, as in sport about sports, music about music, or cook about cooking. If one plays sports, makes music, or cooks, exemplary results are identifiable easily enough, but promotion on behalf of those results, typically after the fact but sometimes in the midst of the activity (i.e., sports commentary), takes place within the context of language. The two major exceptions I can identify are (1) politicking about politics and (2) writing about writing, both heavily laden with speech. (A third example, which I won’t explore, might be celebrating celebrities. Ugh.)

Of the first example I have little to say except that it’s so miserably, ugly, and venal that only politicians, policy wonks, political junkies, and campaign strategists (now full-time political strategists considering campaigns never end) derive much joy or energy from the reflexive trap. The rest of us prefer to think as little as possible about the entirely corrupt nature of political institutions and the associated players. The second example, however, is arguably an inborn feature of writing that still commands attention. Writers writing about writing might be typically understood as fiction writers revealing their processes. A recent example is J.K. Rowling, who leapt from obscurity to international fame in one bound and now offers writing tips (mainly plotting) to aspirants. An older example is Mark Twain, whose recommendation to ward off verbosity is something I practice (sometimes with limited success). Writers writing about writing now extends to journalists, whose self-reflection never seem to wear thin as the famous ones become brands unto themselves (perhaps even newsworthy in their own right). Training attention on themselves (“Look mom, no hands!”) is rather jejune, but again, commonplace. It’s also worth observing that journalists journaling about journalism, especially those who reveal how the proverbial sausage is made (e.g., Matt Taibbi and his book Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another (2019)), are essentially self-cannibalizing (much like celebrities).

What strikes me lately is how many writers, journalists, and commentators (probably includes bloggers like me — bloggers blogging about blogging) have become cheerleaders for the media in which they work, which is especially true of those who have abandoned legacy media in favor of newer platforms to connect with readerships and/or audiences. Extolling the benefits of the blog is already passé, but the shift over to podcasting and YouTube/TikToc channels, accompanied by testimonial about how great are attributes of the new medium, has passed beyond tiresome now that so many are doing it. Print journalists are also jumping ship from legacy publications, mostly newspapers and magazines, to digital publishing platforms such as Medium, Revue, and Substack. Some create independent newsletters. Broadcast journalists are especially keen on YouTube. A fair bit of incestuous crossover occurs as well, as media figures interview each other endlessly. Despite having restricted my media diet due to basic distrust of the legacy media in particular, I still award a lot of attention to a few outlets I determined deserve my attention and are sometimes even trustworthy. Or sometimes, they’re just entertaining. I still tune in the stray episode of someone I find infuriating just to check in and reinforce my decision not to return more frequently.

Stopping here and breaking this post into parts because the remainder of the draft was already growing overlong. More to come in part 2.

While working, I half listen to a variety of podcasts via YouTube, usually minimizing the window so that I don’t see the video. Some report that long-haul truckers are also avid podcast listeners (presumably discarding AM radio); who knows? At any rate, I find it dispiriting that nearly every podcast has attracted sponsors and now features unavoidable, in-your-face advertising on top of ubiquitous exhortations to like, subscribe, ring the bell, and buy merch. Ads are sometimes read live, no longer being prerecorded bits during regular commercial breaks. Segues into ad reads are often tortured, with tastelessness being an inverted badge of honor somehow.

I get that for those who have made podcasting their primary incomes, opining on anything and everything ad nauseum (sorta like me, actually), sponsorship is what keeps them stocked with peanut butter. Why do I still tune in? Well, some are actually entertaining, while others are exceptional clearinghouses for information I wouldn’t otherwise gather — at least when not pedantic and irritating. Good thing I’m only half listening. Case in point: a few weeks back, the DarkHorse Podcast (no link) announced it would begin doing ads, but to make the bitter pill easier to swallow, free endorsements (unpaid ads) would also be presented. Right … more of what I don’t want. In characteristic fashion, the two hosts beat that damn horse well into the afterlife, softening none of the irksome content (at least for me). Although legacy media (e.g., radio, TV, magazines, newsprint) has always required forfeiting some part of one’s time and attention to ignoring or filtering out ads, streaming services and online blockers have done away with much of the unwanted marketing. Perhaps that’s why I’m exasperated at it now being unavoidable again.

With this in mind, here’s my promise to you, dear reader: I will never monetize this blog or put it behind a paywall. I won’t even put up a tip jar or coffee mug to entice micropayments. The blog will also never connect to Facebook or Twitter or any other platform. This blog is totally free and unencumbered (except the ads WordPress puts in, which are relatively easy to dismiss and/or circumvent). Maybe I’m fortunate that I earn my living elsewhere and disavow any desire to be a pundit, influencer, or media figure. Those folks are uniformly unenviable, especially when distorted by their own celebrity so that they forget who they are. Instead, this blog will remain what it’s always been: a venue for me to work out my ideas and secondarily share them.

Already widely reported but only just having come to my awareness is an initiative by Rolling Stone to establish a Culture Council: “an Invitation-Only Community of Influencers, Innovatives, and Creatives.” The flattering terms tastemakers and thought leaders are also used. One must presume that submissions will be promotional and propaganda pieces masquerading as news articles. Selling advertising disguised as news is an old practice, but the ad usually has the notation “advertisement” somewhere on the page. Who knows whether submissions will be subject to editorial review?

To be considered for membership, candidates must sit in a senior-level position at a company generating at least $500K in annual revenue or have obtained at least $1M in total institutional funding.

Rolling Stone‘s website doesn’t say it anywhere I can locate, but third-party reports indicate that members pay either a $1,500 annual fee and $500 submission fee (one-time? repeat?) or a flat $2,000 submission fee. Not certain which. Just to be abundantly clear, fees would be paid by the submitter to the magazine, reversing how published content is normally acquired (i.e., by paying staff writers and free lancers). I’d say this move by Rolling Stone is unprecedented, but of course, it’s not. However, it is a more brazen pay-to-play scheme than most and may be a harbinger of even worse developments to come.

Without describing fully how creative content (arts and news) was supported in the past, I will at least observe that prior to the rise of full-time creative professions in the 18th and 19th centuries (those able to scratch out earn a living on commissions and royalties), creative work was either a labor of love/dedication, typically remunerated very poorly if at all, or was undertaken through the patronage of wealthy European monarchs, aristocrats, and religious institutions (at least in the developing West). Unless I’m mistaken, self-sustaining news organizations and magazines came later. More recent developments include video news release and crowd sourcing, the latter of which sometimes accomplished under the pretense of running contests. The creative commons is how many now operative (including me — I’ve refused to monetize my blog), which is exploited ruthlessly by HuffPost (a infotainment source I ignore entirely), which (correct me if wrong) doesn’t pay for content but offers exposure as an inducement to journalists trying to develop a byline and/or audience. Podcasts, YouTube channels, and news sites also offer a variety of subscription, membership, and voluntary patronage (tipping) schemes to pay the bills (or hit it big if an outlier). Thus, business models have changed considerably over time and are in the midst of another major transformation, especially for news-gathering organizations and the music recording industry in marked retreat from their former positions.

Rolling Stone had always been a niche publication specializing in content that falls outside my usual scope of interest. I read Matt Taibbi’s reporting that appeared in Rolling Stone, but the magazine’s imprint (read: reputation) was not the draw. Now that the Rolling Stone is openly soliciting content through paid membership in the Culture Council, well, the magazine sinks past irrelevance to active avoidance.

It’s always been difficult to separate advertising and propaganda from reliable news, and some don’t find it important to keep these categories discrete, but this new initiative is begging to be gamed by motivated PR hacks and self-promoters with sufficient cash to burn. It’s essentially Rolling Stone whoring itself out. Perhaps more worrying is that others will inevitably follow Rolling Stone‘s example and sell their journalistic integrity with similar programs, effectively putting the final nails in their own coffins (via brand self-destruction). The models in this respect are cozy, incestuous relationships between PACs, lobbying groups, think tanks, and political campaigns. One might assume that legacy publications such as Rolling Stone would have the good sense to retain as much of their valuable brand identity as possible, but the relentless force of corporate/capitalist dynamics are corrupting even the incorruptible.

I admit it: I’m a bit triggered. Storming of the U.S. Capitol Building last week, even though it was over in one day, sent a lot of us back to the drawing board, wondering how things could come to that. Not that civil unrest, attempted coups and secession, and even revolution haven’t been predicted for months. Still, the weirdness of this particular manifestation of citizen frustrations is hard to fathom. See, for instance, this blog post, which offers a reckoning not easy to face. Simply put, crowds that form into protests and physical occupations fully recognize their abandonment at the hand of oligarchs and political leaders and as a result act out their desperation and nihilism. Their question becomes “why not take over and occupy a building?” Doesn’t matter, nothing to lose anymore. It’s already all gone. Whether it’s a college administrative building, governor’s mansion, federal or state office building, or the U.S. Capitol Building, the sentiment appears to be the same: why the hell not? Doesn’t matter there was no plan what to do once the building was breached; doesn’t matter that it wasn’t occupied for long; doesn’t matter that property was damaged; doesn’t matter that lives were ruined and lost; doesn’t matter that no replacement government or executive was installed like a real coup or revolution would demand. Still works as an expression of outrage over the dysfunctions of society.

On the bright side, actual death and injury were quite limited compared to what might have obtained. Mayhem was largely limited to property destruction. Plus, it was a potent reminder to legislators (filmed scrambling for safety) that maybe they ought to fear backing the citizenry into corners with nowhere to turn. Conjecture that, had the racial make-up of the protesters been different, a massacre would have ensued remains just that: conjecture.

(more…)

Caveat: this post is uncharacteristically long and perhaps a bit disjointed. Or perhaps an emerging blogging style is being forged. Be forewarned.

Sam Harris has been the subject of or mentioned in numerous previous blog posts. His podcast Making Sense (formerly, Waking Up), partially behind a paywall but generously offered for free (no questions asked) to those claiming financial hardship, used to be among those I would tune in regularly. Like the Joe Rogan Experience (soon moving to Spotify — does that mean its disappearance from YouTube? — the diversity of guests and reliable intellectual stimulation have been attractive. Calling his podcast Making Sense aligns with my earnest concern over actually making sense of things as the world spins out of control and the epistemological crisis deepens. Yet Harris has been a controversial figure since coming to prominence as a militant atheist. I really want to like what Harris offers, but regrettably, he has lost (most of) my attention. Others reaching the same conclusion have written or vlogged their reasons, e.g., “Why I’m no longer a fan of ….” Do a search.

Having already ranted over specific issues Harris has raised, let me instead register three general complaints. First, once a subject is open for discussion, it’s flogged to death, often without reaching any sort of conclusion, or frankly, helping to make sense. For instance, Harris’ solo discussion (no link) regarding facets of the killing of George Floyd in May 2020, which event sparked still unabated civil unrest, did more to confuse than clarify. It was as though Harris were trying the court case by himself, without a judge, jury, or opposing counsel. My second complaint is that Harris’ verbosity, while impressive in many respects, leads to interviews marred by long-winded, one-sided speeches where the thread is hopelessly lost, blocking an interlocutor from tracking and responding effectively. Whether Harris intends to bury others under an avalanche of argument or does so uncontrollably doesn’t matter. It’s still a Gish gallop. Third is his over-emphasis on hypotheticals and thought experiments. Extrapolation is a useful but limited rhetorical technique, as is distillation. However, treating prospective events as certainties is tantamount to building arguments on poor foundations, namely, abstractions. Much as I admire Harris’ ambition to carve out a space within the public sphere to get paid for thinking and discussing topics of significant political and philosophical currency, he frustrates me enough that I rarely tune in anymore.

In contrast, the Rebel Wisdom channel on YouTube offers considerably more useful content, which includes a series on sensemaking. The face of Rebel Wisdom is documentarian David Fuller, who asks informed questions but avoids positioning himself in the expository center. Quite a change from the too-familiar news-anchor-as-opinion-maker approach taken by most media stars. If there were a blog, I would add it to my blogroll. However, offer of memberships ranging from $5 to $500 per month irks me. Paid-for VIP status too closely resembles selling of empty cachet or Catholic indulgences, especially those with guarantees of “special access.”

I became especially interested in Daniel Schmachtenberger‘s appearances on Rebel Wisdom and his approach to sensemaking. Lots of exciting ideas; clearly the fellow has developed an impressive framework for the dynamics involved. But to make it really useful, as opposed to purely theoretical, formal study akin to taking a philosophy course is needed. Maybe there’s written material available, but without a clear text resource, the prospect of sifting unguided through a growing collection of YouTube videos caused me to retreat (out of frustration? laziness?). At some later point, I learned that Schmachtenberger was a participant among a loose collection of under-the-radar intellectuals (not yet having elevated themselves to thought leaders) working on an alternative to politics-and-civilization-as-usual called Game B (for lack of a better name). A good article about Schmachtenberger and what’s called “The War on Sensemaking” (numerous Internet locations) is found here.

While the Game B gang seems to have imploded over disagreements and impasses (though there may well be Internet subcultures still carrying the torch), its main thrust has been picked up by Bret Weinstein and his DarkHorse Podcast (var.: Dark Horse) co-hosted by his wife Heather Heying. Together, they analyze contemporary political and cultural trends through the twin perspectives of evolutionary biology and game theory. They also live in Portland, Oregon, home to the most radical leftist civil unrest currently under way this summer of 2020. They further warn unambiguously that we Americans are at grave risk of losing the grand melting pot experiment the U.S. represents as the self-anointed leader of the free world and standard-bearer of liberal democratic values sprung from the Enlightenment. What is meant by protesters to succeed the current regime in this proto-revolutionary moment is wildly unclear, but it looks to be decidedly fascist in character. Accordingly, Weinstein and Heying are actively promoting Unity 2020 (var.: Unity2020 and Un1ty2020) to select and nominate an independent U.S. presidential candidate — “Not Trump. Not Biden.” Unless you’re jacked into the Internet and political discussions avidly, it’s quite easy to overlook this emergent political reform. I was vaguely aware of Articles of Unity and its “Plan to Save the Republic” yet still had trouble locating it via Web searches. Weinstein’s penchant (shared with his brother Eric) for coining new terms with flexible spelling is no aid.

Like Rebel Wisdom, Weinstein and Heying, each on their individual Patreon pages, offer multiple levels of membership and access: $2 to $250 per month for him, $5 to $17 per month for her. Why such high divergence, I wonder? I raise paid memberships repeatedly because, while acknowledging the need to fund worthwhile endeavor and to earn a living, there is something tacky and unseemly about enabling concentric inner circles exclusively through paid access — no other apparent qualification needed. More pointedly, an article called “The Corrupting Power Of The Inner Ring” by Rod Dreher at The American Conservative discusses David Brooks’ column about Alan Jacobs’ book How to Think (2017) where Jacobs cites C.S. Lewis’ concept of the inner ring — something to be distrusted. (Sorry about that long string of names.) Also demonstrates how ideas are highly derivative of antecedents found throughout culture and history.

Anyway, the DarkHorse Podcast provides some of the best analysis (not to be confused with news reporting or journalism, neither of which is even remotely successful at sensemaking anymore) to be found among those inserting themselves into the public conversation (if such a thing can be said to exist). Willingness to transform oneself into a pundit and then opine freely about anything and everything is a shared attribute of the people profiled above. (I specifically disclaimed punditry as a goal of mine when launching this blog.) That most of them have embraced podcasting (not blogging — I’m so unhip, committed to a legacy medium that both came and went with surprising celerity) as the primary medium of information exchange is quite contemporary. I surmise it’s silent acknowledgement that Americans (on the whole) no longer read and that text has fallen out of favor compared to speech, especially the eavesdropped conversational type. Podcasting doesn’t complete the information gathering and sensemaking shift from text and newsprint to TV and video begun many decades ago but certainly intensifies it. Podcasting has also demonstrated real money-making potential if one succeeds in attracting a sufficient audience (driving ad revenue) and/or a cadre of subscribers and contributors. Potential for real political engagement is unproven as yet.

Another public intellectual I cited briefly a couple years ago, Thomas Sowell, crossed my browsing path yet again. And yet again, I found myself somewhat credulously led down the primrose path set by his reckless (or savvy?) juxtaposition of facts and details until a seemingly logical conclusion appeared magically without his ever having made it manifest. In the two-year-old interview I watched (no link), Sowell states cause-and-effect (or substitutes one combo for another) confidently while simultaneously exuding false humility. He basically serves up a series of small sells leading to the big sell, except that the small sells don’t combine convincingly unless one is swept unawares into their momentum. But the small sells work individually, and I found myself agreeing repeatedly before having to recognize and refuse the final sale. I also recognize in Sowell’s reliance on facts and numerical data my own adherence to evidence. That’s an epistemological foundation we should all share. Moreover, my willingness to consider Sowell’s remarks is a weak stab at heterodoxy. But as the modern information environment has made abundantly clear, lying with numbers and distortion of facts (or more simply, fake news and narrative spin) are precisely what makes sensemaking so difficult yet critical. For instance, I have echoed Sowell recently in suggesting that inequality and structural violence may be less rooted in snarling, overt racism (at least since the Civil Rights Era) than in simple greed and opportunism while acknowledging that virulent white supremacism does still exit. Yet others insist that everything is political, or racist, or owing to class conflict, or subsumed entirely by biology, chemistry, or physics (or religion). Take your pick of interpretations of reality a/k/a sensemaking. I had halfway expected someone to take me to task for failing to voice the approved radical leftist orthodoxy or try to cancel me for publishing something nominally conservative or Sowellesque. But no one cares what I blog about; I have succeeded in avoiding punditry.

With such a sprawling survey of sensemakers good and bad, successful and unsuccessful (according to me), there is no handy conclusion. Instead, let me point to the launching point for this blog post: my blog post called “Mad World Preamble.” Even before that, I blogged about Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary (2010), drawing particular attention to chap. 12 as his diagnosis of how and when the modern world went mad. Perhaps we have indeed managed to step back from the atomic brink (MAD) only to totter and stumble through a few extra decades as PoMo madness overtook us completely in the latter half of the 20th century; and maybe the madness is not yet the hallucinatory type fully evident at a glance. However, look no further than the two gibbering fools foisted upon the voting public in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. Neither is remotely capable of serving responsibly. Every presidential election in the 21st century has been accompanied by breathless analysis prophesying the implosion of either political party following an electoral loss. Well, they both imploded and can’t field a proper candidate for high office anymore. There is probably no stronger test case for societal and institutional madness than the charade we’re now witnessing. Maybe Unity 2020 is onto something.

One of the victims of cancel culture, coming to my attention only days ago, is Kate Smith (1907–1986), a singer of American popular song. Though Smith had a singing career spanning five decades, she is best remembered for her version(s) of Irving Berlin’s God Bless America, which justifiably became a bit of Americana. The decades of Smith’s peak activity were the 1930s and 40s.

/rant on

I dunno what goes through people’s heads, performing purity rituals or character excavation on folks long dead. The controversy stems from Smith having a couple other songs in her discography: That’s Why Darkies Were Born (1931) and Pickaninny Heaven from the movie Hello, Everybody! (1933). Hate to break it anyone still living under a rock, but these dates are not far removed from minstrelsy, blackface, and The Birth of a Nation (1915) — a time when typical Americans referred to blacks with a variety of terms we now consider slurs. Such references were still used during the American civil rights movement (1960s) and are in use among some virulent white supremacists even today. I don’t know the full context of Kate Smith having sung those songs, but I suspect I don’t need to. In that era, popular entertainment had few of the sensibilities regarding race we now have (culture may have moved on, but it’s hard to say with a straight face it’s evolved or progressed humanely), and uttering commonly used terms back then was not automatic evidence of any sort of snarling racism.

I remember having heard my grandparents, nearly exact contemporaries of Kate Smith, referring to blacks (the term I grew up with, still acceptable I think) with other terms we no longer consider acceptable. It shocked me, but to them, that’s simply what blacks were called (the term(s) they grew up with). Absolutely nothing in my grandparents’ character or behavior indicated a nasty, racist intent. I suspect the same was true of Kate Smith in the 1930s.

Back when I was a librarian, I also saw plenty of sheet music published before 1920 or so with the term darkie (or darkey) in the title. See for example this. The Library of Congress still uses the subject headings “negro spirituals” (is there another kind?) and “negro songs” to refer to various subgenres of American folk song that includes slave songs, work songs, spirituals, minstrel music, protest songs, etc. Maybe we should cancel the Library of Congress. Some published music titles from back then even call them coon songs. That last one is totally unacceptable today, but it’s frankly part of our history, and like changing character names in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, sanitizing the past does not make it go away or any less discomfiting. But if you wanna bury your head in the sand, go ahead, ostrich.

Also, if some person or entity ever does some questionably racist, sexist, or malign thing (even something short of abominable) situated contextually in the past, does that mean he, she, or it must be cancelled irrevocably? If that be the case, then I guess we gotta cancel composer Richard Wagner, one of the most notorious anti-Semites of the 19th century. Also, stop watching Pixar, Marvel, and Star Wars films (among others), because remember that time when Walt Disney Studios (now Walt Disney Company) made a racist musical film, Song of the South (1946)? Disney’s tainted legacy (extending well beyond that one movie) is at least as awful as, say, Kevin Spacey, and we’re certainly not about to rehabilitate him.

/rant off

Robots are coming; we all know it. Frankly, for some implementations, they’re already here. For example, I recently took interest in robotic vacuums. I already have an upright vacuum with the usual attachments I push around on weekends, plus brooms and dustpans for hard, uncarpeted floors. But I saw a robotic vacuum in action and found myself considering purchasing something I knew existed but never gave thought to needing. All it took was watching one scuttling along the floor aimlessly, bumping harmlessly into furniture, to think perhaps my living experience would be modestly enhanced by passive clean-up while I’m out of the house — at least I thought so until I saw the price range extends from roughly $150 to $500. Surprised me, too, to see how crowded the marketplace is with competing devices from different manufacturers. Can’t rationalize the expense as a simple labor-saving device. The effort it replaces just isn’t that arduous.

Another robotic device caught my eye: the Gita cargo robot by Piaggio Fast Forward. I will admit that a stuff carrier for those with mobility issues might be a worthwhile device, much like Segway seemed like a relatively good idea to increase range for those with limited mobility — at least before such devices branched into self-balancing hoverboards and motorized scooters that now clog the sidewalks, create unnecessary hazards, and send thousands each year to emergency rooms with broken wrists (or worse). One of those little Gita buggers following able-bodied folks around seems to me the height of foolishness, not to mention laziness. The video review I saw (sorry, no link, probably outta date and based on a prototype) indicated that the Gita is not ready for prime time and requires the user to wear a camera/belt assembly for the Gita to track and follow its owner. Its limited capacity and operating duration between charges (yeah, another thing to plug in — sigh), plus its inability to negotiate doors effectively, makes it seem like more trouble that it’s worth for the hefty price of around $3,250.

Billed as a robot butler, the Gita falls well short of a Jetsons or Star Wars upright robot that’s able, for example, to execute commands and interact verbally. Maybe the Gita represents the first baby steps toward that envisioned future (or long time ago in a galaxy far, far away), but I rather doubt it. Moreover, we’re already irritatingly besieged by people face-planted in their phones. Who wants a future were others (let’s say half of the people we come into contact with in hallways, corridors, and parking lots) are attended by a robot cargo carrier or fully functioning robot butler? In the meantime, just like the Google Glass that was never adopted widely, anyone seen with a Gita trailing behind is a tool.

For ambulatory creatures, vision is arguably the primary sense of the five (main) senses. Humans are among those species that stand upright, facilitating a portrait orientation when interacting among ourselves. The terrestrial environment on which we live, however, is in landscape (as distinguished from the more nearly 3D environments of birds and insects in flight or marine life in rivers, lakes, seas, and oceans). My suspicion is that modest visual conflict between portrait and landscape is among the dynamics that give rise to the orienting response, a step down from the startle reflex, that demands full attention when visual environments change.

I recall reading somewhere that wholesale changes in surroundings, such as when crossing a threshold, passing through a doorway, entering or exiting a tunnel, and notably, entering and exiting an elevator, trigger the orienting response. Indeed, the flush of disorientation before one gets his or her bearings is tantamount to a mind wipe, at least momentarily. This response may also help to explain why small, bounded spaces such as interiors of vehicles (large and small) in motion feel like safe, contained, hermetically sealed personal spaces. We orient visually and kinesthetically at the level of the interior, often seated and immobile, rather than at the level of the outer landscape being traversed by the vehicle. This is true, too, of elevators, a modern contraption that confounds the nervous system almost as much as revolving doors — particularly noticeable with small children and pets until they become habituated to managing such doorways with foreknowledge of what lies beyond.

The built environment has historically included transitional spaces between inner and outer environments. Churches and cathedrals include a vestibule or narthex between the exterior door and inner door leading to the church interior or nave. Additional boundaries in church architecture mark increasing levels of hierarchy and intimacy, just as entryways of domiciles give way to increasingly personal spaces: parlor or sitting room, living room, dining room, kitchen, and bedroom. (The sheer utility of the “necessary” room defies these conventions.) Commercial and entertainment spaces use lobbies, atria, and prosceniums in similar fashion.

What most interests me, however, is the transitional space outside of buildings. This came up in a recent conversation, where I observed that local school buildings from the early to middle part of the 20th century have a distinguished architecture set well back from the street where lawns, plazas, sidewalks, and porches leading to entrances function as transitional spaces and encourage social interaction. Ample window space, columnar entryways, and roof embellishments such as dormers, finials, cupolas, and cornices add style and character befitting dignified public buildings. In contrast, 21st-century school buildings in particular and public buildings in general, at least in the city where I live, tend toward porchless big-box warehouses built right up to the sidewalk, essentially robbing denizens of their social space. Blank, institutional walls forbid rather than invite. Consider, for example, how students gathered in a transitional space are unproblematic, whereas those congregated outside a school entrance abutting a narrow sidewalk suggest either a gauntlet to be run or an eruption of violence in the offing. (Or maybe they’re just smoking.) Anyone forced to climb past loiterers outside a commercial establishment experiences similar suspicions and discomforts.

Beautifully designed and constructed public spaces of yore — demonstrations of a sophisticated appreciation of both function and intent — have fallen out of fashion. Maybe they understood then how transitional spaces ease the orientation response, or maybe they only intuited it. Hard to say. Architectural designs of the past acknowledged and accommodated social functions and sophisticated aesthetics that are today actively discouraged except for pointless stunt architecture that usually turns into boondoggles for taxpayers. This has been the experience of many municipalities when replacing or upgrading schools, transit centers, sports arenas, and public parks. Efficient land use today drives toward omission of transitional space. One of my regular reads is James Howard Kunstler’s Eyesore of the Month, which profiles one architectural misfire after the next. He often mocks the lack of transitional space, or when present, observes its open hostility to pedestrian use, including unnecessary obstacles and proximity to vehicular traffic (noise, noxious exhaust, and questionable safety) discouraging use. Chalk this up as another collapsed art (e.g., painting, music, literature, and poetry) so desperate to deny the past and establish new aesthetics that it has ruined itself.

Among the myriad ways we have of mistreating each other, epithets may well be the most ubiquitous. Whether using race, sex, age, nationality, or nominal physical characteristic (especially genital names), we have so many different words with which to insult and slur it boggles the mind. Although I can’t account for foreign cultures, I doubt there is a person alive or dead who hasn’t suffered being made fun of for some stupid thing. I won’t bother to compile a list since there are so many (by way of example, Wikipedia has a list of ethnic slurs), but I do remember consulting a dictionary of historical slang, mostly disused, and being surprised at how many terms were devoted specifically to insults.

I’m now old and contented enough for the “sticks and stones …” dismissal to nullify any epithets hurled my way. When one comes up, it’s usually an obvious visual characteristic, such as my baldness or ruddiness. Those characteristics are of course true, so why allow them to draw ire when used with malicious intent? However, that doesn’t stop simple words from giving grave offense to those with either thin skins or being easily and predictably proved by so-called fighting words to answering provocation with physical force. And in an era when political correctness has equated verbal offense with violence, the self-appointed thought police call for blood whenever someone steps out of line in public. Alternatively, when such a person is one’s champion, then the blood sport becomes spectacle, such as when 45 gifts another public figure with a sobriquet.

The granddaddy of all epithets — the elephant in the room, at least in the U.S. — will not be uttered by me, sorta like the he-who-shall-not-be-named villain of the Harry Potter universe or the forbidden language of Mordor from the Tolkien universe. I lack standing to use the term in any context and won’t even venture a euphemism or placeholder using asterisks or capitalisms. Reclaiming the term in question by adopting it as a self-description — a purported power move — has decidedly failed to neutralize the term. Instead, the term has become even more egregiously insulting than ever, a modern taboo. Clarity over who gets to use the term with impunity and when is elusive, but for my own part, there is no confusion: I can never, ever speak or write it in any context. I also can’t judge whether this development is a mark of cultural progress or regression.